As a popular UT history professor finished his last class Friday, wrapping up 29 years at the University, former students and colleagues honored him with a jazz band ensemble that played “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Associate professor Howard Miller focused much of his time at UT teaching religious studies courses, including in the fall semester “Jesus in America.” He grew up in Graham, Texas, just east of Dallas. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of North Texas, before heading to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor to study American history.
Miller said his favorite aspect of his job at UT is the interaction he has with students, some of whom he still keeps in touch with from his early years. Several former students were present at Friday’s celebration.
“It was a kind of perfect way to bring together my past, my present and my future, because one thing I plan to do with my retirement is to be a better steward of better friendships and family by spending more time with them,” Miller said.
When Miller came to UT in 1971, the Department of History did not teach many survey courses on religious history in America.
When the University decided to add more of these courses, the department chose Miller, then an assistant professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
“This is Texas — this is the buckle of the Bible Belt — how about teaching American religion?” Miller said. “So I came here and made it up.”
Since then, Miller designed and taught courses such as The Cinematic Lives of Jesus and Unbelief in American culture. He is currently writing a book on Lew Wallace’s 1880 popular novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.” The novel sold better than any American work of fiction until “Gone With the Wind” was published in 1936. From Broadway ads to movie posters to novelty spices, Miller’s office is decorated with Ben-Hur merchandise.
“My biggest goal is to communicate to these students who don’t know that it’s exciting to think and to live the life of the mind,” Miller said.
Government senior Nick Norris, a student in the Jesus in America course, said Miller is an interesting professor largely because he often injects humor in his lectures.
“I’m not religious, but I’m fascinated with Jesus and what he means to this country,” he said.
Barbara Myers, a former assistant dean in the College of Liberal Arts, attended the ceremony. She said Miller’s engaging teaching style and commitment to his students’ performance make him an effective teacher.
“It’s sort of a sad day because it he is one of the beloved teachers at the University,” she said.